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Trust teachers

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I drove up to a great conference organized by Dartmouth students yesterday with Stuart Kahl, founding principal and CEO emeritus of Measured Progress in Dover, NH.  We moderated a discussion session on the Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessment.

Stuart is a former teacher and, for the last 30 years, has been all about measuring student achievement through various forms of standardized testing.

The point Stuart makes is that, after all is said and done, we must trust our teachers, as Finland and other education high-performers do.  Yes, he says, use assessments such as those his nonprofit company and the Smarter Balanced consortium develop,  but use them to improve teaching.  That means using the results to revise lesson plans or improve the results some teachers are getting.

That’s how NHDOE recommends that districts use test results now.  But ever since No Child Left Behind in 2001, testing has been all about distrust for teachers.  Federal policy has tried to force increased student test results by using the annual assessment as a high-stakes bludgeon rather than as a tool to help teachers improve.

The assumption has been that we can’t trust teachers and schools to want to do better.  They have to be forced into it by high-stakes tests, public shaming, competition from charters and vouchers, etc.

Under No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration held schools accountable.  The Obama administration’s Race to the Top wants to hold teachers accountable.  But both programs have been disasters for American education.

Sue Hannan, English teacher at Manchester’s Hillside Middle School, summarizes the No Child consensus:

“Our teaching became illogical with the advent of No Child Left Behind because we were so concerned with adequate yearly progress.  It became a data circus – became useless, really…..”

Then the Obama administration joined with education reformers in New York and many other states to hatch formularized high-stakes teacher evaluation policies that treat teachers as the enemy.  When teachers and their unions point out the endless flaws in these systems, they look as if they are trying to avoid accountability – which in turn reinforces the views of those who think the teachers and their unions just want a cushy job and have no interest in their students anyway.

So those systems have gone to war with their teachers, but for nothing.  Neither No Child Left Behind or draconian teacher accountability has led to improvements in how much students learn.  You could say, though, that the last 13 years of American education reform has proven one thing: not trusting teachers is a dead end.

Who is it, actually, 
who doesn't trust teachers?  
It's not most parents.

It’s odd, really.  Who is it, actually, who doesn’t trust teachers?  It’s not most parents.  They talk with their children’s teachers all the time and know how engaged they are.  It’s not the administrators – at least, not those who are real leaders.  In New York and some of the other big cities, administrators may have destroyed the potential to work with their teachers.  But you can see in New Hampshire – and it’s true, I’m sure, in most of the 100,000 other school districts around the country – that administrators and teachers are in it together to make their schools work for their kids.

So it’s not most parents or administrators who have given up and resort to punitive measures; it’s those who seem to have given up on public schools – the education reformers and privatizers – who are pushing a punitive form of accountability.

Trusting teachers doesn't mean 
relinquishing accountability.

When you talk with New Hampshire teachers and visit their classrooms, it’s clear that most of them are working hard for their students.  That’s why, in spite of the modest pay and the dysfunctional education reform debate, they continue to teach.  As charter practitioner Meredith Liu, observed to me at lunch, it’s not primarily a matter of competition from her charter schools or the threat of a bad evaluation that motivates teachers.  As difficult as it is these days, they continue to love teaching and want to make a difference in their students’ lives.

But trusting teachers doesn’t mean relinquishing accountability.  The Common Core standards have made it possible for teachers to track their students’ progress in detail.  They can report on that progress periodically and others can check the details when necessary.

District and state education leadership can use test data and other information to help their students learn more without making enemies of their teachers.  In the end, what choice is there?

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